The classic Harley-Davidson gets a 21st century update
by Simon de Burton
As Harley-Davidson gears up for an electric future, the Street Glide Special is a big blast from its glorious past, says Simon de Burton
Save for apple pie and the Stars and Stripes, there are few things more American than a Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle marque was born in 1903 when childhood friends William S Harley and Arthur Davidson built their first machine in a Milwaukee shed. Since then, Harley-Davidson has come to represent the best of American freedom, growing into a blue-chip brand with a distinctive logo that appears not only on motorcycles but on clothing and a vast range of other products – Harley-Davidson dog food, anyone?
The company has, however, endured its fair share of ups and downs: changes of ownership, strikes, profit warnings and, above all, the disdain of many members of the two-wheeled community who say Harleys are slow, heavy, ill-handling, outmoded machines that are built for posers rather than “real” riders.
But for the millions around the world who love them, the fact that Harley-Davidson has stuck with the air-cooled, V-twin engine format with its distinctive exhaust note (which the company even sought to trademark in 1994) is part of what makes the bikes great.
Harley’s problem, however, is that its buyers are getting older. It no longer releases official demographic figures, but the last time it did – in 2008 – the average owner was 48. To combat this, the brand is set to release its forward-thinking LiveWire electric motorcycle and has substantially funked up its street bike range to appeal to a younger audience. It came as a surprise, then, to take delivery of the latest Street Glide Special from the touring range and find that it retains all the expected character – much of it provided by the 1.8- litre V-twin engine – yet is remarkably refined.
My first ride involved a 390-kilometre airport run, which the Street Glide tackled without breaking sweat, its mighty engine delivering huge bursts of power and torque with minimal vibration and the wide handlebars and deep saddle offering superb comfort.
The seemingly decorative fairing works a treat, too, and the bike’s built-in, touchscreen infotainment system made for a level of convenience far removed from Harley’s outlaw biker image.
My fear, however, is that the days of such motorcycles may be numbered as the electric revolution gathers pace. Which seems like the perfect reason to get acquainted with a Street Glide Special or one of its fellow tourers before it’s too late. After all, none of us is getting any younger.
HARLEY-DAVIDSON STREET GLIDE SPECIAL SPECIFICATIONS
Engine: 1,868cc double overhead camshaft V-twin
Gearbox: Six speed
Fuel capacity: 22.7 litres
Price: from £22,495